John Kirby (December 31, 1908 – June 14, 1952), was a jazz double-bassist who also played trombone and tuba. Kirby may have been born in Winchester, Virginia, although other sources say he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, orphaned, and adopted. Kirby hit New York at 17, but after his trombone got stolen, he switched to tuba. Some link him to Baltimore in 1926, but he seems to have been based in New York until moving to California shortly before his death. Kirby joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra as a tuba player in 1929. In the early 1930s, he performed some amazingly complicated tuba work on a number of Henderson’s recordings. Kirby picked up on the double-bass at the time when tuba was falling out a favor as jazz bands’ primary bass instrument. About 1933 Kirby left Henderson and played with Chick Webb (twice), back with Henderson, and with Lucky Millinder. He briefly led a quartet in 1935 but generally kept busy as bassist in others’ groups. Securing a gig at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, Kirby really got going as a bandleader in 1937, although in the first Onyx Club lineup, singer-drummer Leo Watson got featured billing. Soon Kirby’s sextet was known as the Onyx Club Boys, and it took the shape it would basically hold until World War II, usually with Kirby on bass, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Buster Bailey on clarinet, Russell Procope on alto saxophone, Billy Kyle on piano, and O’Neill Spencer on drums. “The Biggest Little Band in the Land,” as its P.R. called it, began recording in August 1937 and immediately had something of a hit with a swing version of “Loch Lomond.” The group’s name would vary with time and depending on who was officially credited as session leader: John Kirby and His Onyx Club Boys, John Kirby and His Orchestra, Buster Bailey and His Rhythm Busters, Buster Bailey and His Sextet. This would become one of the more significant “small groups” in the Big Band era and was also notable for making the first recording of Shavers’s song “Undecided”. Vocals were often performed by Maxine Sullivan, who became Kirby’s wife in 1938 (divorced 1941). In 1938 four members of the group (Shavers, Bailey, Kyle and Kirby) participated in two recording sessions for Vocalion Records (11th May and 23rd June) accompanying singer Billie Holiday as Billie Holiday and her Orchestra. Kirby tended toward a lighter, classically influenced style of jazz, often referred to as chamber jazz, which has both strong defenders and ardent critics. He was very prolific and extremely popular from 1938-1941, but World War II took away Kyle and Procope; bad emotional health ruined Spencer, who died from tuberculosis in 1944. Nevertheless, Kirby kept trying to lead a group in clubs and in the studio, occasionally managing to attract such talents as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Clyde Hart, Budd Johnson, and Zutty Singleton. As Kirby’s career declined, he drank too much and was beset by diabetes. After the war Kirby got the surviving sextet members back, with Sarah Vaughan as vocalist, but this didn’t last long. He had one last hope with a December 1950 concert at Carnegie Hall, again reuniting with Bailey plus drummer Sid Catlett, but the small turnout “crushed Kirby’s spirit and badly damaged what little was left of his career.” Kirby moved to Hollywood, California, where he died just before a planned comeback.
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